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The teleological drive – the desire to not merely make, but rather to perceive inherent purpose in the world – influences a myriad of adult human behavior. Such behavior may range from conspiracy theories to abstract philosophical works, but even “scientists” may falter. […]

Both Darwin and Freud introduced highly disconcerting models of thought for a world hitherto predicated on the teleological. The theory of evolution and the unconscious seemed to queer many of the most ingrained human conceptions of purpose and control. However, the drive toward Why Must!? is not easily banished, and rather than die out, it burrowed into the very concepts that threatened it. Little wonder then that many of us today conceive of evolution as Nature’s architect and regard the unconscious (our Id) as an insidious competitor-agent. In such a teleological worldview, emotions such as sadness are no longer random behavioral traits. Rather, they become adaptive instinct, forged by Nature to guide humanity and distinguish intuitively between right and wrong.

All good so far, but what’s this about?

Although the following statement risks being unscientific, what all the aforementioned seems to imply is that human beings have a strong teleological instinct, a propensity for asking Why? and Why Must!? Our obsession with perceiving (and thus ascribing) purpose most likely arose as an adaptive trait in an inter-human, social context. With such complex brains, humans are capable of countless emotional affections and a perhaps infinite array of varied behavior. To perceive someone teleologically is to see and comprehend his intent, his consciousness in relation to one’s own. The comprehension of intent offers security from the innumerable and seemingly purposeless actions humans may exhibit. On an anthropological level, teleology would seem to benefit the formation of complex, social structures, wherein the determination of purpose serves to regulate and maintain varied levels of production and class. The agency-attribution error supports the notion that teleology is an instinct “made” for humans, the only beings with an agenda, that is, capable of being purposeful agents. Both scientists and laymen would do well to remember the influence this artificial instinct has on thought and language. After all, if language-cognition arose under a teleological context (that is, a human-social context), all semantics must contain, invoke, and conceal a Why Must!?

Serendip: Science without Purpose: Suppressing the Teleological Instinct

Sure, it’s possible that there’s an evolutionary function of the teleological impulse (I’ll call it an impulse since we don’t know that it’s actually an instinct) – but we should remember that evolution only selects for “good enough,” not necessarily “optimal.” The teleological impulse may be a side effect of our ability to determine cause and effect (which does seem to serve an evolutionary function) and serve no actual function. We’ve made it this far with it, so it hasn’t been selected out – just like many other harmful human behaviors.

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